Exhausted migrants on France’s Aquarius bear scars of the past

The 141 migrants onboard the Aquarius rescue boat at the centre of Europe's latest migration drama, are exhausted and mentally scarred after harrowing journeys, according to an aid worker on the ship.

Exhausted migrants on France's Aquarius bear scars of the past
Photos: AFP

On Tuesday, five European countries agreed to take in the migrants to avoid another bitter dispute like the one in June when Italy and Malta turned the Aquarius away with 630 people onboard.

This time the Aquarius had been floating between Italy and Malta since carrying out two rescue missions off Libya on Friday — the crew desperately worried the standoff would repeat itself.

“We've been on standby since 8:00 am yesterday (Monday), exactly halfway between Malta and Italy,” said Aloys Vimard, a coordinator with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), one of two charities operating the ship.

Vimard, reached by telephone, said more than half of the passengers were minors — 73 in total, of whom 67 were travelling alone.

“A quarter of those on the boat are between 13 and 15, unaccompanied, and from either Eritrea or Somalia,” he told AFP.

Both Horn of Africa countries remain deeply troubled — Somalia torn by violence among militias, Islamists and criminal gangs, while repressive Eritrea maintains an indefinite military service that has been likened to slavery by the United Nations.

While the bulk of the youngsters onboard the Aquarius are teenagers, Vimard said they were “still vulnerable.”

On Monday the crew organised a basketball match for the youngsters which briefly took their minds off their situation, he said.

“They have experienced such ordeals that they have impressive maturity and incredible resistance,” he added.

One of the teenagers, a 13-year-old boy, fled Somalia after his parents were killed in front of him.

Like many, he spoke of horrendous abuse after making his way to lawless Libya, “tortured for months with electric shocks”.

“He eventually got released because he asked the guards to kill him to end it all,” said Vimard.

'Contempt' for human lives 

The crew had spent the last 24 hours, stranded at sea, attempting to reassure the migrants.

“We told them we'd do everything possible to find a place,” Vimard said. “That we wouldn't leave them.”

After the standoff in June, which eventually ended when Spain allowed the boat to land, the Aquarius docked in the southern French port of Marseille for a month of maintenance work.

Vimard said its upgraded facilities were a reflection of the fact that people were now spending more time onboard.

Before the arrival in June of Rome's new populist government, which says it has had enough of taking in migrant ships, there was no shower as passengers were usually just aboard for two days before disembarking in Italy.

Now all passengers shower systematically while other procedures have been changed to help prevent the spread of disease, Vimard said.

While the Aquarius crew is determined to keep picking up people they say would drown otherwise, Vimard fears governments will repeatedly turn them away, prompting standoff after standoff.

“The question now is how many times politicians are going to hold human lives in contempt,” he said, urging the European Union to “find a decent system to avoid managing rescues on a case-by-case basis”.

He accused European politicians of “discouraging the captains of rescue boats from rescuing people in distress, which is their duty as sailors”.

“It is terrible. It is the very nature of maritime rescue that is being called into question,” Vimard said.

By the time the Aquarius reached one of the two boats whose passengers were rescued Friday, five ships had already passed by and done nothing to help them, he said.

These ships “changed course” despite the boat “being clearly in distress, wooden, unstable and overloaded.”

After the first dispute over the Aquarius, EU countries agreed to explore several new policies in a bid to cut off the influx towards Europe.

But “if we put up more barriers, people will take bigger and bigger risks,” Vimard said.

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How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area

European countries agreed on Thursday to push towards a long-stalled reform of the bloc's migration system, urging tighter control of external borders and better burden-sharing when it comes to asylum-seekers.

How the EU aims to reform border-free Schengen area
European interior ministers met in the northern French city of tourcoing, where president Emmanuel Macron gave a speech. Photo: Yoat Valat/AFP

The EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson, speaking after a meeting of European interior ministers, said she welcomed what she saw as new momentum on the issue.

In a reflection of the deep-rooted divisions on the issue, France’s Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin – whose country holds the rotating EU presidency – said the process would be “gradual”, and welcomed what he said was unanimous backing.

EU countries backed a proposal from French President Emmanuel Macron to create a council guiding policy in the Schengen area, the passport-free zone used by most EU countries and some affiliated nations such as Switzerland and Norway.

Schengen council

Speaking before the meeting, Macron said the “Schengen Council” would evaluate how the area was working but would also take joint decisions and facilitate coordination in times of crisis.

“This council can become the face of a strong, protective Europe that is comfortable with controlling its borders and therefore its destiny,” he said.

The first meeting is scheduled to take place on March 3rd in Brussels.

A statement released after the meeting said: “On this occasion, they will establish a set of indicators allowing for real time evaluation of the situation at our borders, and, with an aim to be able to respond to any difficulty, will continue their discussions on implementing new tools for solidarity at the external borders.”

Step by step

The statement also confirmed EU countries agreed to take a step-by-step approach on plans for reforming the EU’s asylum rules.

“The ministers also discussed the issues of asylum and immigration,” it read.

“They expressed their support for the phased approach, step by step, put forward by the French Presidency to make headway on these complex negotiations.

“On this basis, the Council will work over the coming weeks to define a first step of the reform of the European immigration and asylum system, which will fully respect the balance between the requirements of responsibility and solidarity.”

A planned overhaul of EU migration policy has so far foundered on the refusal of countries such as the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to accept a sharing out of asylum-seekers across the bloc.

That forces countries on the EU’s outer southern rim – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain – to take responsibility for handling irregular migrants, many of whom are intent on making their way to Europe’s wealthier northern nations.

France is pushing for member states to commit to reinforcing the EU’s external borders by recording the details of every foreign arrival and improving vetting procedures.

It also wants recalcitrant EU countries to financially help out the ones on the frontline of migration flows if they do not take in asylum-seekers themselves.

Johansson was critical of the fact that, last year, “45,000 irregular arrivals” were not entered into the common Eurodac database containing the fingerprints of migrants and asylum-seekers.

Earlier, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser suggested her country, France and others could form a “coalition of the willing” to take in asylum-seekers even if no bloc-wide agreement was struck to share them across member states.

She noted that Macron spoke of a dozen countries in that grouping, but added that was probably “very optimistic”.

Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, hailed what he said was “a less negative atmosphere” in Thursday’s meeting compared to previous talks.

But he cautioned that “we cannot let a few countries do their EU duty… while others look away”.

France is now working on reconciling positions with the aim of presenting propositions at a March 3rd meeting on European affairs.